Monday, September 5, 2016

The idea of God

(published on the WAVES blogsite, 3 September 2016)


All known civilizations have a thing called “god”, plural or singular. They are a category of beings deemed endowed with far more power and a vastly larger longevity than us human beings. For the rest, their characters and functions may vary.

In writing, the idea of “a god” is first attested in the Sumerian ideogram Dingir, which has the physical form of a radiant star. It certainly has the meaning “god”, for it is used as the common determinative for a whole class of names signifying gods. That, indeed, was anciently how a divine being was conceived: as a radiant heaven-dweller. In Babylon and in Harran, each planet was worshipped in a temple of its own.

The pre-Islamic religion was also largely star worship (next to ancestor worship and the worship of special stones like the Black Stone in Mecca’s Ka’ba). Thus, the three Meccan goddesses of Satanic Verses fame, al-Lāt, al-Uzza and al-Manāt, are roughly the Sun, Venus and the Moon. The Ka’ba was dedicated to the moon-god Hubal, and housed a stone fallen from heaven.

Stars were explicitly recognized as gods by prominent philosophers like Socrates and Plato. Some dissident freethinkers however, like the philosopher Anaxagoras and the playwright Aristophanes, thought stars were only burning rocks. After Christianization, when all divinity was invested in an extra-cosmic Supreme Being, the planets were desacralized and reduced to cogwheels in a cosmic machinery set in motion by the Creator and operated by his angels. Though numerically, a large part of humanity now espouses this desacralizing view, it is rather exceptional in the history of religions. The association of gods with stars was pretty universal.


Other properties of a god

Because a star is radiant and stands in heaven, near-permanently visible to all, it is a part of our collective consciousness, our shared frame of reference. This, then, is the operative meaning of “a god” in human life: the personification of an important collective factor difficult to negotiate, and which you have to take into account in the things you plan to do. Thus, Dyaus = heaven, Agni = fire, Indra (“the rainer”) = storm; Vayu = wind, Pṛthivī (“the broad one”) = earth. This principle is then generalized, and gods can be personifications of any category of beings. Thus, Śiva is the personification of the renunciants, unkempt and living in the mountains.

A god is powerful in that he can impact your life. But he is not all-powerful, because he has to share his power with other gods. Rarely if ever is he seen as “the Creator” who stood outside the universe and fashioned it from nothing. Rather, he himself is a part of the universe. Creation is normally seen as only a transformation from formless matter to the present world of form, and in that process, gods may play their part. In that limited sense, the Vedas and Puranas have plenty of “creation” stories. Yet they also assume that the universe as a whole has always been there, though it cyclically becomes unmanifest, only to reappear again. It is an exclusively Biblical-Quranic belief, further propagated by thinkers who elaborate the Biblical or Quranic assumptions, that a single Supreme Being, in a single moment never to be repeated, created the whole universe from nothing. 

Gods are imagined to be endowed with personalities befitting the element of which they are the personification. As such, they are also sensitive to gifts and flattery, and may thus be influenced into exercising their power in a partisan, friendly way. That is why people who would never think of appeasing the stormy sea, do devise rituals to appease the sea god, hoping that he will guarantee smooth sailing.

Finally, a star or god is also, as far as a mortal can tell, eternal: it existed before we were born and goes on existing after we have died. As suggested by the extreme longevity of the physical stars, gods are proverbially deemed immortal. Hence the binary: us mortal earthlings versus the immortal heaven-dwellers.



The same meaning of “star”, “radiant heaven-dweller”, is present in Vedic Sanskrit Deva, “the shining one”, hence “a god”. It is also etymologically present in cognate words like Latin Deus, “a god”. One of the Sanskrit terms for “astrologer”, at least since its mention in a 4th-century dictionary, is Daiva-jña, “knower of the gods”, or in practice, “knower of destiny”. Another is Daiva-lekhaka, “gods-writer”, “destiny-writer”, i.e. horoscope-maker. Obviously, the stars here were seen as gods regulating man’s destiny.

A parallel development, but omitting (or only implying) the original link with the stars, is found in Slavic Bog, “the share-giver”, “the apportioner”, “the destiny-decider”, related to Sankrit Bhaga, and hence to the derivative Bhagavān. Other god-names are more derived from the practice of worshipping, such as the Germanic counterpart God, “the worshipped one”, Sanskrit Huta; or the Greek counterpart Theos, “god”, related to Latin festus, “festive”; feriae, “holiday”, i.e, “religious feast”; and to Sanskrit dhiṣā, “daring, enthusiastic”, dhiṣaṇā, “goddess”, dhiṣṇya, “devout”. But even here, a stellar connection reappears, for the latter word is also a name of Śukra/”Venus”.

More examples of the personification of heavenly phenomena as gods are found throughout the Vedas. The deities Mitra and Varuṇa represent the day sky (hence the sun, here remarkably called “the friend”) c.q. the night sky, with its stable sphere of the fixed stars, with its regular cycles representative of the world order. The Nāsatyas or Aśvins (“horse-riders”) are thought to represent the two morning- and evening stars, Mercury and Venus, who “ride” the sun, often likened to a horse. Uśa (related elsewhere to Eōs, Aurora, Ostara, and hence to “east” and “Easter”) represents the sunrise.

The Vedic gods were personifications of natural forces, with whom you could do business: do ut des, “I give to you” through sacrifice, “so that you give to me” the desire-fulfilment I want. That type of relation between man and god is pretty universal. That was the ancient worldwide conception of gods. But in auspicious circumstances, religion was to graduate from this stage, and the gods would go beyond the stars.


Transcending the stars

Hindus often react to the above-mentioned view as insufficiently respectful to Hinduism. They insist that it is a Western “Orientalist” fabrication to see the gods as mere personifications of natural forces. In foreign countries, perhaps, but not in India. They think it treats religion as essentially childish, for in children’s talk, or in that by mothers towards children, there is a lot of personification. Yet, we insist that in the Vedic stage of civilization, this conception of gods still prevailed; perhaps already as a rhetorical device built on top of an earlier more primitive stage, but still sufficiently present to leave numerous traces. It shows a deficient sense of history to project the newest insights of Hinduism back onto its past, and to deny the amount of change that has taken place in the conceptual history of Hinduism.

But then two things happened. The first is that from the Upanishads onwards, in a distinctively Indian development, the notion of Self-Realization or Liberation arose. The way to this goal, the Sādhana or what is nowadays called “the spiritual path”, is not about the fulfilment of desires; instead, the point is to decrease your desires, to renounce, to abandon. This was initially conceived as a process in which no god or other being played any role (whether they were deemed to exist or not), making way for a focus on the Self (ātman), equal to the Absolute of pure consciousness (brahman). This Absolute was conceived as being above the pairs of opposites, as devoid of characteristics (nirguṇa). Gods were relegated to the background, to the world of desire-fulfilment through rituals. Self-Realization implied renunciation from desire-fulfilment, and hence a distance from the gods and their favours.

The second development is that the gods persisted or were revived, but in a transformed role. Stellar references are explicit in the case of Sūrya, the sun, and of Soma/Candra, the moon; but less so in the case of Viṣṇu, “the all-pervader” (like the sun’s rays), though he has a solar quality; and Śiva (“the auspicious one”, an apotropaeic flattery of the terrible Vedic god Rudra, “the screamer”), the Candradhāra or “moon-bearer”, the Somanātha or “lord of the moon”, has a lunar, nightly quality. The classical Hindu gods Viṣṇu and Śiva represent a revolution vis-à-vis the Vedic worldview. You don’t bring sacrifices “for Liberation” to the Vedic gods, a notion presupposing renunciation from those desires. By contrast, the later “Puranic” gods of classical Hinduism take some distance from the naturalist meaning in which they originate, and do integrate Liberation. Very soon, devotional-theistic movements adapted this new notion to their cult of Viṣṇu, Śiva or Śakti (or elsewhere, Amitābha Buddha or Avalokiteśvara), gods with a distinct personality (saguṇa) but more spiritual. In Kashmiri Shaivism, Śiva gets abstracted as pure consciousness, Śakti as pure energy. With these gods, you could “unite” so as to terminate your susceptibility to worldly suffering, to delusion, to the karmic cycle. They would grant you Liberation, just like the Vedic gods would grant you wish-fulfilment.

But that doesn’t mean Hindus have given up on wish-fulfilment. They still perform rituals to help them get what they want, and often this involves explicitly stellar gods, but conceived as lower gods or “demi-gods”. Astrologers instruct their clients to say prayers before the planet that disturbs their horoscope. The client will get advice on what ritual to practise, when and how and for which god, to ward off the negative influences of the stellar configurations indicated in his horoscope. This will remove the obstacles to his well-being and the fulfilment of his desires. The navagraha or “nine planets” (sun, moon, their two eclipse nodes, and the five visible planets) as a whole are a normal object of worship.



Mono- versus polytheism

The Sumerian ideogram Dingir was read as El In neighbouring Akkadian, a Mesopotamian dialect of Semitic. We know this word very well through Hebrew, a northwestern (Levantine) dialect of Semitic. Thus the names Uriel, “my light is God”; Gabriel, “my strength is God”; Michael, “who is like God?” But as we shall presently see, these names now carry a meaning of “God” that has resulted from a revolution, viz. from poly- to monotheism.

A derivative of El is Eloha, “a deity”, “a god”. We know it mainly through the plural form Elohim, “gods”, “pantheon”. Strangely, this form has survived the theological revolution described in the Bible book Exodus under the leadership of Moses, ca. 1250 BCE. Here, the many gods were replaced with a single jealous god, yet the plural form Elohim remained but with a singular meaning: God. Thus, the Bible, which received its definitive form only under the Persian empire ca. 500 BCE, when this usage was well-established, starts with the sentence: “Berešit bara Elohim et ha-šamaim ve-et ha-aretz”, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The connection with the stars was severed, at least for the Israelites, not all the other nations: “Pay attention lest ye lift your eyes up to the sky for seeing sun, moon and stars, that ye be led astray and adore and serve them, those whom the Lord your God hath assigned to all the nations under heaven." (Deut. 4:19)

A synonym of Elohim, referring to the same jealous God, is Yahweh. Moses himself introduced this god-name into Biblical tradition. Though new to the Israelites after centuries in Egypt, it must have existed earlier among the Arab (South-Semitic) Beduins as well as among the Northwest-Semitic people of Mari. Moses, when a fugitive from Egyptian law after he was found out to have committed murder, stayed with a Beduin tribe. They had a storm-god Yahweh, best translated as a causative participle of a verb meaning “to move in the sky”, whether “to blow” or “to stoop like a bird of prey”, from an Arab root HWY later attested in the Quran (22:32), but not in the Bible. This meaning is confirmed by the fixed expression Yahweh Sabaoth, “he who causes the motion of the heavenly hosts”, i.e. of the majestic procession of the stars across heaven. Here again we find a stellar meaning associated with a god-name.

Moses saw an apparition of this god in the burning bush. When Moses asks the god who he is, the god expresses his total sovereignty: “I am who I am”, ehyeh ašer ehyeh. Theologians and translators have contemplated this sentence profusely, until in ca. 1900, the German Orientalist Julius Wellhausen hit upon its probable original meaning: it elaborates a pun on the name Yahweh, which the Hebrews misinterpreted folk-etymologically as a causative participle of the verb HYY, “to be”, hence “the being one”, “he who is”, or more philosophically, “he whose essence is existence” “he who necessarily exists”, “he who causes existence to exist”. This edifice of profundities is entirely built on a folk-etymological pun, nothing more. Or to put it more positively: a new conception of the divine was grafted onto an old god.

The Arab form of the originally polytheistic term ha-eloha, “the deity”, is al-Ilāha, also “the deity”. A contracted form is Allāh, “thé deity”, “the god par excellence”, hence “God”. Originally it could refer to any earlier-mentioned god. Thus, Mohammed’s Pagan father was called Abdallāh, “servant of the deity”. Mohammed, in a bid to establish monotheism among the Arabs, reinterpreted Allāh as a synonym of Yahweh. He saw himself as the latest (and even last) one of the line of the prophets of Yahweh, renamed Allāh in Arabia. This way, the star-god El, the Semitic form of Sumerian Dingir, ended up shedding his connection with the stars and becoming the disembodied extra-cosmic Creator-god Yahweh/Allāh. The Quran (6:78, 22:18, 41:37) simply and strictly prohibits star worship.

In the footsteps of the reform movements Brahmo Samaj and Aryan Samaj, many anglicized Hindus claim that “Hinduism too is monotheistic”. This is a very defensive stand, and it is simply not correct. If the Hindu wealth of gods and of ways of worship were not polytheistic, what other religion would be? It seems to us that they are using a word they don’t understand. Monos does not mean “one”, it means “alone”, “one and no other”. Monotheism accepts only Yahweh or Allah, and considers all others as false gods, only good to be destroyed and discarded: Marduk, Ba’al, Osiris, Ahura Mazda, Śiva, Buddha. By contrast, Hinduism is inclusive. The Vedic verse: “The wise call the one essence by many names”, means that the different gods are not false but are essentially the same as your chosen god. There are no “false gods” in Hinduism. Reality is both one and manifold, and Hinduism is not bothered with the question whether the divine is single or many.

This also counts for other Pagan civilizations. When Protestant missionaries set up shop in China, they discovered that a native term roughly meaning “God” was Shangdi, so they appropriated this term as name of the Christian God. (Catholics preferred Tianzhu, the “Heavenly Boss”.) What they did not know, is that the Chinese language mostly does without the separate category of a plural, so the same word can be both plural and singular. Shangdi does not so much mean “the Sovereign on High”, as rather “the Powers on High”. In Chinese, even the grammar militates against the contrast between one and many. To monotheists this numerical matter is all-important, worthy of the iconoclastic destruction of all the “false gods”; but to regular people such as Hindus or Confucians and Daoists, it is just not an issue.



Heaven-worship is truly the universal religion, rivalled only by ancestor-worship. And even then, these two are intertwined. Deceased ancestors are deemed to be in heaven, often actually associated with a specific star. When your father has died, you take your child on an evening walk, and when the stars appear, you point out one of them and say: “There is grandpa, watching over us.” In a Vedic ritual, a zone in the sky, in the Scorpio-Sagittarius area, is designated as the destination of the dead.

For famous people, who had become part of the collective consciousness, the procedure could be to “elevate them to godhood” (Greek: Apotheōsis) by associating them with a specific star or constellation. A case in point from antiquity is Antinoös, the lover-boy of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who drowned himself and was given a star in Aquarius, still named after him. When in the 17th century the southern sky was mapped, one constellation was named after the protection given to Vienna by Jan Sobieski against the Ottoman siege: Scutum Sobieskii, “Sobieski’s shield”, now simply Scutum.

This practice was first attested in writing in Ugarit, Syria, where in ca. 2000 BC famous people upon their deaths were identified or “associated” with a star. In the native Semitic, this practice was named Širk, “association”. The term ought to be well-known today, but with an evolved meaning. When Islam imposed monotheism, it denounced polytheism and idolatry as Širk, i.e. the “association” of a mortal, a creature, with the Supreme Being, the Creator.

India too has known this practice. The stars of the Great Bear are named after the Seven Sages who composed most of the Ŗg-Veda. There are different variations of this list of seven, but one of the Sages who returns in all of them is Vasiṣṭha. He and his wife Arundhātī are associated with the twin stars Mizar and Alcor. In a moderate way, they did graduate to godhood, with a few temples in Himachal and Uttarakhand dedicated to them. Another sage who made it to heaven is Agastya, the Sage who went to the South, and therefore has the southern star Canopus named after him.



At the dawn of history, and practically since the birth of mankind, star worship, partly overlapping with ancestor worship, was the main religion worldwide. With the development of civilization, conceptions of the divine grew away from their referents in nature. India generated a spirituality implying renunciation, and the gods followed suit. The Upanishads signalled a break with the Vedic focus on the gods and reoriented mankind’s attention to the spiritual path. A kind of relation with a kind of gods was restored, but adopting the new focus on Liberation.

Star worship remained alive, as “nothing ever dies in India” (in the words of the late Girilal jain), but that old layer was overlaid with new levels of abstraction. The highest of these was the abstract concept of the Absolute (Brahmaṇ) that appeared in the Upaniṣads and remained, in various guises, in the mai sects of Hinduism. But the lower levels, including the naturalistic, star-related levels dd not disappear; it was an organic evolution.

A roughly similar evolution took place in the Greek world and then in the Roman empire. The elites outgrew the colourful pantheon and, mainly through Stoicism, accepted a more abstract and more unitary concept of the divine. In Neoplatonism, which may have been influenced by Indian developments, everything was thought to emanate from “the One”. In China too, “the One” was the name of a unifying abstract concept transcending the many natural gods of everyday religion. 

Unfortunately, in the Roman empire, this natural evolution was interrupted and forcibly driven in a particular direction by the imposition of Christianity. However, at the same time, to better insinuate itself in the Greco-Roman culture, Christianity also took over much from Stoicism and Neoplatonism, which appear mainly in Christian morals c.q. theology. The breakthrough of monotheism followed the same pattern as the conceptual development in Hinduism to a some extent, but was unnecessarily brutal and destructive regarding the earlier religion. The same scenario repeated itself even more abruptly with the advent of Islam.

The resulting concept of divine unity (in Islam: tawḥīd) was also much cruder than a what gradual development would have made possible. While superseding the colourful old gods, Yahweh or Allah were much like them in their negative aspects: all too human, too personal, not nirguṇa, “beyond qualities”. As India has shown, it was perfectly possible to move from a naturalistic to a more abstract conception of the divine without destroying the earlier conception.  



Unknown said...

Dear KE,

When you write on history or politics, your posts make much sense, however when you try to wrestle spiritual topics, as some of your readers have noticed before, the result leaves much to be desired.

It is a bit disappointing or rather sobering that an able individual like yourself, who visits India regularly, hasn't figured out yet how one ought to deal with one's spirituality more than what our current materialistic societies would suggest, thus a friendly advice: as your posts these days seem to be few and far between, use that free time to brush up on your own spiritual path, visit your favorite guru (perhaps one of those places where you got initiated before) and spend some time there, in that special atmosphere of spiritual awakening, to get back to the roots, so to speak, as i feel you have been neglecting that part of your life for a long time now, dealing mostly with western/eastern trivialities of everyday politics, science, media and such - the experience may be exactly that what you have been looking for: answers that go beyond the usual scientific reasoning, answers that point towards one's purpose, relationship to the divine and the meaning of life in general.

Unknown said...

You write

"Hindus often react to the above-mentioned view as insufficiently respectful to Hinduism. "

My difficulty is not about the phrase "insufficiently respectful". Rather, it is that you employ the desire-belief model from the theory of intentionality in order to understand rituals. You probably know the desire-belief model better than I do; let me say it briefly.

According to the desire-belief model, the patron of a ritual has a desire to be successful in some endeavor, he has a belief that rituals are instruments that will help him to achieve that desire, therefore he calls a brahmin vaidika to carry out an appropriate ritual.

Wittgenstein discussed this very topic when reviewing a book of anthropology. Wittgenstein said that those who carried out rituals showed common sense in many areas, so much so that they could not possibly believe that rituals would be instruments that could help them to achieve this or that desire. (Please see Paras 6--9 of )

Ananth Sethuraman

I would appreciate your comments whether it is OK to use the belief-desire model for understanding rituals.

Koenraad Elst said...

Hari Smith, I don't really know what you are talking about. How would my leven of spirituality affect the facts I describe in the history of ideas? I gave this paper earlier before the Indian Council of Philosophical Research, and there too the chairman said I was lacking in spirituality. While this is very possible in itself, it does not affect this comparative study of the idea of god/God. I have often noticed, though, that many traditionalist Hindus resent my use of the comparative method. Thus, to say that the doctrine of four Yugas is not typically Hindu but is equally attested among Greeks, Germanics and even Mayas detracts from the unicity of Hinduism. Likewise, my observation that Kundalini is not only in evidence in Daoist meditation but even among the Aboriginals and Bushmen, is not liked at all. And then they always start sermonizing about spirituality, on the assumption that this can be equated with Hinduism.

NK said...

There is really nothing controversial here. Modern Hindus should be embarrassed with the nonsense and magical thinking that goes on at temples...worshipping monkeys and elephants (Hanuman and Ganesha) and anthropomorphizing nature with preposterous rituals; Marx, despite his faults, was right to criticize this. It's a definite regression of thought when you compare this with Classical Samkhya, etc. Apologists maintain that these characters are allegories for something profound, but it is obvious nonsense. At any rate, Elst is right overall. The trend towards personalizing nature is on the wrong side of history:

"Meanwhile, a slow fuse lit by the Greeks burned its way towards an explosive alternative. From its earliest days, Greek philosophy began to see in Nature, not the direct effects of divine agency, but simply as the place of workings of blind and impersonal mechanisms. This began without any particular evidence of the truth of that approach, but gradually evidence began to accumulate that Nature was amenable to such understanding. The gods began to recede from Nature. Plato and Aristotle soon provide metaphysical theories that could remove the divine from the world altogether, in each case also reducing the gods to One, as all of Greek philosophy had always prefered one original principle, whether tangible or abstract, behind all phenomena. Unfortunately, the gods also tended to lose their personalities in this process, and the Deity of Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers was usually without any personality whatsoever. Aristotle's God, "thought thinking itself," was particularly removed, not knowing individiuals, and unequipped for spontaneous action, acts of will, or any extraordinary interventions in the world at all. It was a God little different from the impersonality and fixity of Plato's World of Forms. This process reflected a grave commitment to the "perfect fallacy," but it also seemed to work.

When Christianity came to dominate the Roman Empire, the process of depersonalization was retarded by the power of the Christian religious intuition -- the force of a Jewish God whose personality spilled from Biblical pages in a flood, together with the unimpeachable personality of a man who walked and taught in Galilee and was now regarded as God himself. An incarnated God, in the world and in history as a man, was for long a powerful and winning counterforce to an impersonal reality. But in time the Hellenizing pressure of the impersonal returned. Now its weapons had mutiplied, as the reach and sweep of modern science conquered ever larger realms of nature and life."

Anonymous said...

Ethical pleasure is purpose of life - not the suffering glorified by those worshiping the 'jealous and angry' demiurge known as jehova- eg. by Dharmic standards motherteresa was no sant. (see Vadakayil's analysis of this bitter albanian woman) True One (actual God) is perfect. To such perfection we Dharmics strive.

Vraja said...

Koenraad, the idea you put forth about Hindu or Vedic teachings differing so drastically from Biblical conceptions is a bit off. While they do have creation from nothing which is different from anything Hindu, you also stated that there is no original creation in the Hindu shastras, that there is only the cyclical conception of the universe. That is not true, although commonly believed by many Hindus.

The Nasadiya sukta in the Rig Veda is clearly about an original creation, there is no other way to describe what it says. And in other places in the Upanishads we see other similar teachings to that where they state clearly that nothing ever existed before an original creation.

The creation stories in the shastras are of two types, that as just mentioned above of an original primal creation before which nothing existed except infinite energy and the purusha in a nascent unconscious state, and then there are the cyclical creation story types, which are a completely different conception.

In the cyclical conceptions the shastras state it is the individual brahmandas which are cyclically created and destroyed, not all at once, and not the totality of everything that exists which is what you seemed to be saying. There are said to be countless brahmandas existing at all times which emanate out of the pours of Maha-Vishnu (in the Vaishnava shastras account) while laying in the karana (causal) ocean upon the shesanaga bed (the multi-headed serpent bed, which is a metaphor for Vishnu existing upon a foundation of infinite power). The Vaikuntha planets are said to not undergo change, they are never destroyed, they are the realm where the liberated souls dwell with the Vishnu in nitya-lila.

My next comment I will share a translation of the Nasadiya sukta.

Vraja said...

Here is the Nasadiya Sukta, there are other translations but most are like this:

nAsad AsIn no sad AsIt tadAnIM nAsId rajo no vyomA paro yat
kim AvarIvaH kuha kasya sharmann ambhaH kim AsId gahanaM gabhIram
na mRityur AsId amRitaM na tarhi na rAtryA ahna AsIt praketaH
AnId avAtaM svadhayA tad ekaM tasmAd dhAnyan na paraH kiM chanAsa
tama AsIt tamasA gULiham agre .apraketaM salilaM sarvam A idam
tuchChyenAbhv apihitaM yad AsIt tapasas tan mahinAjAyataikam
kAmas tad agre sam avartatAdhi manaso retaH prathamaM yad AsIt
sato bandhum asati nir avindan hRidi pratIShyA kavayo manIShA
tirashchIno vitato rashmir eShAm adhaH svid AsI3d upari svid AsIt
retodhA Asan mahimAna Asan svadhA avastAt prayatiH parastAt
ko addhA veda ka iha pra vochat kuta AjAtA kuta iyaM visRiShTiH
arvAg devA asya visarjanenAthA ko veda yata AbabhUva
iyaM visRiShTir yata AbabhUva yadi vA dadhe yadi vA na
yo asyAdhyakShaH parame vyoman so a~Nga veda yadi vA na veda

Neither was there non-existence, nor was there existence then
Neither was there land, nor the heaven/sky beyond that.
(In that case), what was the facade (or envelope)? Where? Encased in what?
How could there be/ was there, water, impenetrable and deep?

Neither was there death, nor immortality then.
Neither was there any sight of night and day.
Motionless (it was) most definitely/ assuredly. That One (became) a pulsating consciousness, by its own Self Nature.
There was none other.

At first darkness lay hidden in darkness (or nothingness existed in nothingness, but concealed).
(And/ thus) water was visible everywhere.
(From) the gigantic all pervading void/ emptiness (that) existed,
With a mighty reverberation, the One was born, out of Contemplation.

Desire was first (created), by It's same-motion (vibration).
This was the Primal seed (of desire) in the mind.
The relation/ connection/ join between existence and non-existence, they (the Seers) found out,
by reflecting (on the matter) in their heart, and have accepted (this).

The cord (or connection between existence and non-existence), cut across and spread in all directions (in the middle or perhaps above).
It was insemination (of existence) by the Great Self, above and below.

How can this be know with certainty? (Who can tell this to us with certainty?)
Who here can tell us?
From where was it born?
From where was it released/ projected?
The Gods came subsequent (to this creation).
How then can the (birth of) this world/ universe (existence) be known? (Who then knows (about the) birth of this world/ universe? (existence))

This creation of (this universal) existence (earth/ universe),
perhaps He (the Great Self) placed (it there) or perhaps not.
The one who is the (Absolute) Lord of the Supreme Cosmos,
He would definitely know (right?) .... or maybe even He does not.

deepesh said...

Stop embarrassing yourself u buffoon

deepesh said...

Stop embarrassing yourself u buffoon

Unknown said...

Isn't it possible that the two kinds of creation stories are speaking of the same event from different perspectives? The cyclical talks about all of them, whereas the primal focuses only on one particular cycle. That period of no discernible activity may be viewed as a transitional period between two cycles, that may roughly correspond to Brahma's resting period after his lifetime.

The Nasadiya Sukta is supposedly incomplete so some insight has been lost to this age.

The Biblical concept of creation from nothing may simply be a different interpretation of that transitional period of no-thing manifested in existence, thus still compatible with Vedic position(s).

Vraja said...

Hari, it isn't just the Nasadiya sukta, there are other similar statements in the Upanishads and other places. They make it clear they are speaking of an original creation by the primeval being coming into existence from an unconscious state. The cyclical creation stories are totally different in concept and explanation.

From an ontological perspective it is simply logic to insist on an original or primeval creation, i.e. the origin of the world cannot be without original creation, otherwise it would be like saying "this city has always existed, sometimes it falls apart and is rebuilt, but it has always existed in one of the two states."

That is not possible because a city is comprised of many designed elements. It is not a naturally occurring thing. Therefore there was a time when it was all originally designed. Before it was originally designed it didn't exist because the inherent quality of a design is that it is created on purpose. It cannot be a design if it was not created. If it was not created then it has to be a naturally occurring thing. The Nasadiya Sukta and other similar teachings are making that exact point - there was an original state of all existence which had no designed elements because they had not been designed yet.

Language did not exist because it is a design. Before the first language the primeval being had no language to communicate with itself. It needed to design a language to use to think with. But before that stage it needed first to comprehend what it was. Knowledge is not inherent in anything. Therefore the primeval being which today has unlimited knowledge over every subatomic particle in existence, had to have been at a primal stage where it had no knowledge of anything - because the inherent nature of knowledge is that it must be acquired.

Therefore all knowledgeable beings were originally without knowledge of any type. This is what the Nasadiya Sukta tells us, that before there was any knowledge of what it was or where it was, before the primeval being "knew" anything at all, at first there was an awakening of the seed of desire. That original desire to know what it was and where it was, that was the beginning of its knowing something. It had so seek out and learn the answers.

Before that stage it was in an unknown eternal stage of unconsciousness, then semi-consciousness, and then conscious but without knowledge of anything. The Nasadiya sukta tells us that maybe that primeval being knows how it came to be, or maybe it does not. That is came about by some profound change in the eternal unconscious infinite energy of existence. It is a mystery how that occurred it states, maybe God knows or maybe not. But one thing it makes clear - God did have an origin as the consciousness arising out of the infinite wellspring of cosmic energy which it/he/she now uses as its source of power - as the shastras call it, shesanaga, the metaphor for Maha-Vishnu laying on the karana or causal ocean laying on the serpent bed - or that which causes Vishnu to exist as such with infinite powers at disposal.

The world as such is a product of a massive amount of design. From the basic elements on up, all is a product of the mind of God. When the shastras say that the brahmandas emanate out of the pores of Maha-Vishnu, that is a metaphor for exertion by God. Ordinarily sweat comes out of pores when you exert yourself, i.e. the worlds of the universe are a product of God's exertion in designing and creating everything in existence. They cannot exist without that, or its continual presence and upkeep. Realizing that supreme being in the here and now (within us and all around) is the purpose of the Vedic message, by its design all of its children come to the truth of our existence at the appointed time and method.

Unknown said...

If there was a state of unconsciousness before creation occurred (the beginning of all creation), isn't it logical to expect a cyclical return to unconsciousness after the creation ends (the end of all creation)? The Seers couldn't perceive anything else in the state of unconsciousness because God wasn't perceiving anything in terms of creation (thus there was nothing to see for them in that respect), ie. He entered the state intentionally, likely due to a lack of interest in playing with or maintaining temporary/lesser things, which is comparable to human sleep, though the latter comes from exhaustion.

God or The Absolute or His Absolute truths ought to be beyond this kind of creation, not subject to creation/destruction cycles, states of consciousness/unconsciousness, etc. They ought to be unchangeable and ever-present, regardless of what is happening in the creationist playground.

We could differentiate between two kinds of playgrounds:
2. Creationist playground, which is temporary and of lesser quality, subject to creation/destruction cycles and karmic bondage - this is what we currently experience as human beings.
1. Absolute playground, which is eternal, with unlimited possibilities and freedom, of the highest possible or supreme quality (that of the Supreme Being, aka God) - this is where we belong (long for, are destined for), which is reachable upon Self-realization.

Why is it so? Because God leaves no stone unturned, so to speak.

Also, many thanks to Vraja for his special scriptural insight and his interesting book too. I'd have to extend thanks to KE and everyone else on this blog (including those like deepesh) but it would still feel incomplete, thus to be complete, one simply needs to give thanks to the source of it all, ie. the Supreme Being, aka God, or at least our current idea of God (just like the title of this post/thread)

Arun said...

Kazanas has a different view, it seems.

However, there is a vast difference between the Vedic conception of deities and other traditions including Buddhist, Christian etc, and even Hindu. This difference is hardly ever mentioned and when it is mentioned, as by Edgerton, it is hardly given much value. Vedic deities are forces within man. Yes, of course they are deities outside, all around, natural forces on earth, in the atmosphere and the sky, (the earth itself with its fecundity, waters, rain, air, sun, moon etc); there are also gods of morality like Varuṇa, Mitra and Bṛhaspati. But, as the Atharvavedic hymn 11.8.32 says, Man is the brahman and all devatā (deities, gods) reside in him as cattle in a pen!

But the internalisation of the deities had already appeared in the RV. Agni, the Firegod, is said to be set within man’s heart hṛ́daya āhitá and, so, is the constant light of all inspiration, in the early hymn 6.9.6 of the Bharadvāja clan. This luminous power is perceived through mind mánasā nicay – (3.26.1) and itself as mental force manas is the fastest of all entities that fly (6.9.5). Indra too is internalised identifying himself with sages Manu, Kakṣivan and Uśanās (4.26.1) and his state may be attained by men, though not by deeds or sacrificial rites (8.70.3). Then, human functions like foresight and vigour are deified in 1.53.5 as devī prámati and devī táviṣī respectively.

Vraja said...


I think you are mixing the 2 different creation types. The first creation is where God first arises from an unconscious infinite field of potential, then God discovers its nature and gradually develops its inherent powers which ultimately leads to our current universe. When did this happen? This is impossible for us to know unless God tells us. In an infinite eternal megaverse time time is eternal, and although God had to have a beginning as an intelligent being, how long ago that happened could be trillions upon untold trillions of years ago, multiplied by untold trillions. There is no reason that would ever end in the sense of a logical progression, i.e. God was birthed as the consciousness of the infinite multiverse, being infinite it has no end and therefore nothing to stop it from existing forever. God is eternal, there is no reason to think that just because God needed a beginning as an intelligent being that God didn't exist before that without intelligence and without consciousness. Something happened in that eternal unconscious being/infinite energy which awakened it to consciousness. Then it acquired knowledge of itself. It is not a logical step to think it must cease.

You mix that creation conception with the cyclical stories. Those are based upon an already perfectly all-powerful supreme being who creates unlimited worlds and then destroys them on a regular basis. Different traditions express these ideas slightly differently, some using names of Shiva or Devi and others instead of Vishnu. I want to point out that in my previous posts I misstated that in the shastras Maha-Vishnu (adi-purusha, the first being) is said to lay on shesanaga on the karana ocean, that is a bit off. Maha-Vishnu lays on the karana ocean, the causal ocean, then in each brahmanda another form of Vishnu lays on sheshanaga (creative energy) and from his navel the lotus stem is situated which rises to the flower where Vishnu manifests as Brahma or Hiranyagarbha, and then expands as the the countless life forms filling the brahmanda (virat-rupa).

These stories are often taken metaphorically. For example Maha-Vishnu or the first Purusha creates the untold number of worlds through his exertion, his labor. That comes from the metaphor of the brahmandas coming from the pores of his skin like sweat, sweat implying labor, exertion.

Then in each brahmanda laying on the Garbha (womb) ocean is Vishnu, reclining on shesa and manifesting himself as Hiranyagarbha (Brahma) on the lotus flower out of his navel. Hiranyagarbha (Brahma) then expands himself into the multifarious beings as the virat-rupa (universal form of Vishnu). That can be seen as a metaphor for God existing with an infinite supply of creative energy (shesa) and then using his mind and intellect (the lotus flower and Brahma symbolize mind and intellect) to expand himself as the life forms in our world from the font of infinite creative energy (ananta shesha).

Then that Vishnu expands into another form (laying in the ocean of milk) in each brahmanda as the all-pervading consciousness/intelligence within and all around the brahmanda, causing all and everything to action and thought as paramatma, the soul of all things and all beings in the brahmanda, existing in the heart of every particle of energy. This can be seen metaphorically - the ocean of milk implies Vishnu laying within a nutrient rich source of energy and ability for all beings as paramatma, the soul of all. like a mother providing milk for her child, Vishnu maintains all the beings in the world as the soul of their soul, causing intelligence and giving the ability of action for them, giving them what they need to live as intelligent people from within. This form (laying on the milk ocean) of Vishnu is also called the lord of the mind (Aniruddha) because he manifests as the power of your mind, creating your thoughts and the power of intellect (which is beyond your own ability), controlling memory and so on.

Balaji said...

Dr. Elst, I recently discovered your blog and now look forward to hours of pleasurable reading of the archives of your blog. I recognize many of the ideas in this post in your earlier posts, "Pluralism in Ila's city" and "Cultural astronomy and star worship in Bath".

Unknown said...


'They make it clear they are speaking of an original creation by the primeval being coming into existence from an unconscious state.'

Is there a reason why the opposite process (returning to the unconscious state) wouldn't be manifested as well? We can think of it, surely the Supreme thought of it much more thoroughly or meaningfully. Or could this be the part that is missing from the scriptures, to intentionally create confusion in a kind of playful teasing, as a common occurrence in many divine stories or pastimes.

Form Satya to Kali Yuga we have a gradual transition towards lesser spiritual abilities, whereas the opposite process is not done in a similarly gradual way, but rather suddenly or abruptly, returning the state of things/beings back to the Satya level. If this idea is applied to the above, then we could expect an abrupt end of consciousness, of that conscious state (as if the Supreme Being simply closed his eyes and went to sleep!).

Another question is what happens to eternally present places and their inhabitants, like Goloka or Vaikuntha planets while God is in a state of unconsciousness, do they 'sleep' too?

And another twist to the story is the meaning of eternity or timelessness, where God could be in an unconscious state, semi-conscious state or conscious state (via his expansions), where any of these states may coexist simultaneously and be perceived by numerous Seers at their various stages, like having many readers simultaneously reading various chapters of their books, going back and forth through the pages, switching books and whatnot, according to their (spiritual) desires.

'Who can tell this to us with certainty?'

What if all of it is in a state of certainty (guaranteed by the Supreme), thus there is no definitive answer as to which comes first or which is more important, as they all can be viewed as first if so desired, based on personal preference. Certainty may be applied even to temporary materialistic things or events while they last/occur or while they are manifested.

Vraja said...

Koenraad, I think your account of the earliest forms of Vedic thought in the earliest writings available to us an incomplete account of what they say about God or Gods. The earliest writings speak often of one God, not many gods, and they speak in cosmological terms of a single unified conception of life, the universe, and everything - as well as in terms of which can be seen as you said - personifications of "nature." Both these conceptions are there in the very earliest writings, in the Rig Veda for example we are told all the names of the Gods are all names of the one universal God. This idea is seen over and over in the earliest writings, as is the concept of a universal unity (panentheism), not just the anthropomorphic worship that some may also see there.

Also you have another idea in saying that the earlier form of sadhana and teaching in the Upanishads is non-theistic, which is certainly not going to be seen as accurate by Hindu scholars. The earliest Upanishads were profoundly theistic. Anyone who reads the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad or Chandogya Upanishad will see theism quite clearly as they speak about all sorts of theistic ideas from an original creation by the original being, to all the typical theistic Upanishadic conceptions of the self and God, God and the world, and so on. For example Chandogya Upanishad part 6

Ray Lightning said...

Comparative religion is very good. Indian religions are often left out of these comparative approach, and are typically not considered favorably. What you did on this blog post is a good starting point, but I should mention that you are still using western categories for comparison. This Aristotlean approach can only go so far.

Indian religion, philosophy and logic have a deeper foundation than simple 2-valued logic and categorical approach.

I would like to point out some exceptions to your thesis to probe your investigation in this regard.

1) Indian religion, going back to the Vedas, have equated the external world with the internal world of the consciousness. For example, the well-known Purusha Sukta compares the external universe with the limbs of a human. Such comparisons are available throughout the Vedas. So the philosophical / spiritual investigation is not an exclusive concern starting from the Upanishads. In fact, all the Vedic devas have been identified by the Rishis not only in the external world, but also in the internal world of the inner self.

2) The association of stars and celestial bodies with the devas does not carry throughout either. What do you say about Shiva ? He is the lord of the Maruts and Rudras who are associated with wind. He is called the Mahakala, and associated with the passage of time. In fact, these wind deities are often shown in contrast with the solar deities. These are competing forces, even in the Vedas, and not just in the Puranas.

3) In fact, the Vedic deities are a COMPLETE description of the universe. They are not a choice description of the "good" things in the universe. They cover everything - good and bad are determined only by the context.

4) The duality of Mitra and Varuna is a case in point. Mitra is a deva, but Varuna is a Asura. The Asuras are also divine beings (but not immortal). The Daityas are the children of the Diti (finite) as compared to the Adityas, who are children of the Aditi (infinite). So the Asuras keep dying and keep getting resusciated by the Sanjeevani of the Shukracharya. This Deva/Asura duality is a central point in Vedic religion - they are both considered important.

5) Other Indo-European cultures may have been influenced by the Vedas, but they don't have this spiritual psychophysical connection. Their pantheons are not holistic like the Vedas. They don't have subtle distinctions with the Devas and the Asuras, both being considered necessary for the function of the universe. This watered-down religion and mythology (probably due to distant contact with Vedic heartland) is now remembered only barely by the European pagans. But it does not have the full vocabulary of the Vedic mythology. In fact, the situation is quite similar to the profound nature of the Sanskrit etymology and grammar as compared to the other Indo-European cousins, which are far inferior in their linguistic capacities. Realizing this centrality of the Vedas for the Indo-European myth is essential for a rejuvenation of other pagan cultures.

Aniketana said...

Gods are mainly named after forces, which made impact on human life (fire, wind etc). Stars (except Son, whom they had not realised was a star) pribably did not affect their life, so they were mainly associated with human beings (Sapta Rishi, Trishanku, Dhruva) than Gods. They probably represented a higher position (like Dhruva).

Anonymous said...

Veda describes material multiverses. (khand brahamand)

Eternal Spiritual realms commence at level of Sach Khand, the 5th level that is Realm of Truth. Akal Purakh according to online research reveals is at 8th level according to SantMat (Sikh sect) literature. Above Akal Purakh are at least two other Eternal Realms of Perfection (perfect beauty/truth and pleasure).

Entrance to Sach Khand and above is reserved for MahaPurakhs. Such a one can be found in any path or tradition.

True MahaMantra is in fact "Waheguru". Life's all about good thoughts, good words and good deeds. It is important to be well-intentioned and above all, kind and gentle. What violence fails to achieve can in fact be achieved through pyar (love).

It is not enough to just sit around waiting for Kalki to arrive and save the day. One must reform oneself as well as "the world" which is ultimately a "mountain of smoke" according to Sikh Scripture. Sure world is mountain of smoke ('Maya') but let us Dharmics resolve to make world mountain of pleasant smelling smoke and not the toxic stench of Kaljug.

Ushering in Age of Truth demands we end Kaljug agricultural and military practices. There are no occupational divisions in the afterlife but protecting one's tradition and ethnicity are important while visiting this Earth. Dharm demands we live in accordance with Natural Law. Obedience to Mother, Father, Guru-God as well as love and loyalty for homeland are very important principles in the life of a genuinely Dharmic (ethical) human being. Ahimsa is superior to worldly laws that are sometimes used simply to entrap simple peoples.

Deg Teg Fateh Panth ki Jit

adamarchetype said...

Wonderful post!

On monotheism versus polytheism, one statement lifted from Book 5 of the Mahabharata (Udyoga Parva): "There is but one Brahman which is Truth's self. It is from ignorance of that One, that god-heads have been conceived to be diverse." Of course there are many other such utterances such as the identification of Krishna with the universe, it surprises me that you are so adamant to pin down Hinduism to polytheism even as you admit the potential influence Hindu philosophy may have had upon the Platonic "One" that informed the monotheism of Christianity. Conversely, the history of Christianity, as you know, is replete with polytheistic tendencies from the worship of the saints, archangels, Mary, etc. Nevertheless I do resonate with the important point you are making about the intolerant brand of monotheism characterized by Islam and Christianity as against the tolerant "unity in diversity" attitude of the Hindus.

Another aspect I would like to note is that somewhere between the worship or supplication of star-deities for desire fulfillment and the spiritual "liberation" path I detect in the old stories a pattern of an individual who would go into the mountains or forest to spend a thousand years standing on one leg and thereby become puffed up with power raising him to a status equal or above the "gods": the gods themselves become jealous of this brazen upstart and employ devices to impede his progress. Is it possible that the original austerity practices of yoga were not aiming towards a buddhist-like renunciation of worldly desire, but rather a bid for power that depends not on divine favor but rather the personal development of self-control and stamina? Somewhere between the primitive star-worship and the later "spiritual path of liberation" I am interested to discover the historical development of the meditative practices that could effectively bring about the remarkable achievements of philosophy, mathematics and science that are characteristic of Indian civilization.

Unknown said...

मन की बात : “100 फीसदी कैशलेस संभव नहीं, लेकिन लेस-कैश तो संभव है” पीएम मोदी